Fri 5 May 2006
While the following entry is not based directly from out class material, I was able to apply things we learned about Whitman earlier in the semester to make sense of Michael Warner’s lecture on Sex and Secularism in Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps. The leacture focused on the role of and relationship between sex, nationalism, and religion in mid-nineteenth century America, particularly in the fields of poetry and literature. Warner contended that a dominant script existed which placed sex squarely in the domestic and religious domain, away from the growing nationalist movement associated with the American Civil War. Warner used poet Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 publication of Battle of the Republic became a secular anthem of the Civil War, as an example of this dominant ideology. However, Howe, who claimed that nationalism and religion were inherently connected, felt that religion had been abandoned in the public sphere, as evident by its lack of inclusion in the Constitution of the United States. Thus, sexuality became a social issue. For example, the dominant ideology of the time concerning woman’s sexuality was deeply connected to the Cult of True Womanhood, which defined the role of womanhood through literature, magazines, and social pamphlets.
This was opyposed to Whitman’s views on sexuality, which he depicted through his poetry in Drum Taps and later Leaves of Grass. Whitman, who was himself a homosexual, took on a much more unique view of sexuality and religion. Though attacked by his opposition as an agnostic and sexual deviant, Whitman’s own religious beliefs were progressive and individual. Shunning the idea of spoon fed religion, Whitman was an advocate of a personal type of religion, where one had a deeply felt connection to God but did not need an organized institution to lead this relationship. This is connected to nationalism indirectly; in his essay Democratic Vistas, Whitman claimed that two main characteristics were necessary for a successful democracy – “1st, a large variety of character, and 2nd, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions” (Democratic Vistas). His idea of a personal relationship to God, diametrically opposed to the limits of organized religion, embodied this idea of free development. Whitman felt that sexuality, like religion or poetry, should not be limited to socially constrained norms, such as the ideology behind the Cult of True Womanhood, and Drum Taps reflected this.